Extending across the north and south side of the Alps, Switzerland encompasses a great diversity of landscapes and climates on a limited area of 41,285 square kilometres (15,940 sq mi). The population is about 7.8 million, resulting in an average population density of around 190 people per square kilometre (485/sq mi). The more mountainous southern half of the country is far more sparsely populated than the northern half.
Contrasted landscapes between the Matterhorn area in the high Alps, the Sanetsch region and the plateau at Lake Lucerne
Switzerland contains three basic topographical areas: the Swiss Alps on the south, the Central Plateau or middleland, and the Jura mountains on the north. The Alps are a high mountain range running across the central-south of the country, comprising about 60% of the country's total area. Among the high valleys of the Swiss Alps many glaciers are found, totalling an area of 1,063 square kilometres. From these originate the headwaters of several major rivers, such as the Rhine, Inn, Ticino and Rhone, which flow in the four cardinal directions into the whole of Europe. The hydrographic network includes several of the largest bodies of freshwater in western Europe, among which are included Lake Geneva, Lake Constance and Lake Maggiore. Switzerland has more than 1500 lakes, and contains 6% of Europe's stock of fresh water. Lakes and glaciers cover about 6% of the national territory.
Contrasted climates between the most glaciated area in western Eurasia (Aletsch Glacier), the cold temperate Jura (Vallée de Joux) and the southern canton of Ticino (Lake Lugano)
About a hundred of Switzerland's mountain peaks are close to or higher than 4,000 metres. At 4,634 m/15,203 ft, Monte Rosa is the highest, although the Matterhorn (4,478 m/14,692 ft) is probably the most famous. Both are located within the Pennine Alps in the canton of Valais. The section of the Bernese Alps above the deep glacial Lauterbrunnen valley, containing 72 waterfalls, is well known for the Jungfrau (4,158 m/13,642 ft) and Eiger, and the many picturesque valleys in the region. In the southeast the long Engadin Valley, encompassing the St. Moritz area in canton Graubünden, is also well known; the highest peak in the neighbouring Bernina Alps is Piz Bernina (4,049 m/13,284 ft).
The more populous northern part of the country, comprising about 30% of the country's total area, is called the Middle Land. It has greater open and hilly landscapes, partly forested, partly open pastures, usually with grazing herds, or vegetables and fruit fields, but it is still hilly. There are large lakes found here and the biggest Swiss cities are in this area of the country. The largest lake is Lake Geneva (also called Lac Léman in French), in western Switzerland. The Rhone River is both the main input and output of Lake Geneva.
The Swiss climate is generally temperate, but can vary greatly between the localities, from glacial conditions on the mountaintops to the often pleasant near Mediterranean climate at Switzerland's southern tip. Summers tend to be warm and humid at times with periodic rainfall so they are ideal for pastures and grazing. The winters in the mountains alternate with sun and snow, while the lower lands tend to be more cloudy and foggy in winter. A weather phenomenon known as the föhn can occur at all times of the year, even in winter, and is characterised by a relatively warm wind, bringing air of very low relative humidity. It blows mostly on the northern side of the Alps where it can trigger dangerous avalanches.
The driest conditions persist in the southern valleys of the Valais above which valuable saffron is harvested and many wine grapes are grown, Graubünden also tends to be drier in climate and slightly colder, yet with plentiful snow in winter. The wettest conditions persist in the high Alps and in the Ticino canton which has much sun yet heavy bursts of rain from time to time. The eastern part tends to be colder than western Switzerland, yet anywhere up high in the mountains can experience a cold spell at any time of the year. Precipitation tends to be spread moderately throughout the year, with minor variations across the seasons depending on locale. Autumn is frequently the driest season, yet the weather patterns in Switzerland can be highly variable from year to year, and difficult to predict.
Switzerland's ecosystems can be particularly fragile, because of the many delicate valleys separated by high mountains, often forming unique ecologies. The mountainous regions themselves are also vulnerable, with a rich range of plants not found at other altitudes, and experience some pressure from visitors and grazing. The climatic, geological and topographical conditions of the alpine region make for a very fragile ecosystem that is particularly sensitive to climate change.
holiday calendars 2010